Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. (Matthew 7:15)
This verse begins with the imperative verb “beware” – the Greek prosecho meaning to pay attention to or be cautious about. This is not just good advice; it is a command from our Lord. There are false prophets in abundance all around us. They come to us sheep, dressed up in sheep’s clothing; that is, they infiltrate Christian gatherings disguised as Christians. Often they fill great pulpits and attract large crowds. Jesus warns that they are “ravening wolves.” The Greek word translated “ravening” is hárpages meaning “rapacious,” i.e., given to seizing for plunder or the satisfaction of greed, and inordinately greedy; predatory; extortionate. These are out to exploit the flock for their personal gain. Their strategy is simple: tell the sheep what they want to hear. “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears;” (2 Timothy 4:3).
So how are we to recognize these wolves in sheep’s clothing? After all, on the surface, they appear harmless. Jesus provided the answer. “Ye shall know them by their fruits” (Matthew 7:16a). Therefore, we are called to be fruit inspectors. “Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles?” (v. 16b). The concept is simple: “every good tree bringeth forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree bringeth forth evil fruit” (v. 17). The challenge is in discerning the good fruit from the bad fruit. What standard is to be used? The Berean church had the right idea. “These were more noble than those in Thessalonica, in that they received the word with all readiness of mind, and searched the scriptures daily, whether those things were so” (Acts 17:11). John tells us to “believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). The Greek word translated “try” is dokimazō, and it means “to test (literally or figuratively); by implication to approve: – allow, discern, examine, (ap-) prove, try.”
Always measure the words of the prophet against the Word of God. “Study to shew thyself approved unto God, a workman that needeth not to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth” (2 Timothy 2:15). The Greek word translated as “study” is spoudazō and it means “to use speed, that is, to make effort, be prompt or earnest: – do (give) diligence, be diligent (forward), endeavour, labour, study.” “Rightly dividing” is the Greek word orthotomeō, which means “to make a straight cut, that is, (figuratively) to dissect (expound) correctly (the divine message): – rightly divide.” So when we make an earnest effort and give diligence to correctly dissecting the Word of God (Truth), we should be able to spot the false prophet because his words will not match up with God’s Word. In this way, we can tell the good fruit from the bad, and never fall prey to the false prophets.
On a somewhat different note, but still very much related: some think that making such judgments is somehow “un-Christian,” and any kind of judging should be avoided. They come to this conclusion because earlier, in this same chapter of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus said, “Judge not, that ye be not judged. For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again” (Matthew 7:1-2). Obviously, from what Jesus said afterward, He did not mean for us to put our discernment on the shelf. We need to exercise discernment and to make judgments in order to identify the false prophets disguised in sheep’s clothing. What we are not to do is pass “holier-than-thou” judgments on our brothers and sisters in Christ except to help them out of some error or sin into which they have fallen. For that a close self-examination is required before proceeding. As for the wolves, beware, be vigilant, and learn to recognize their false message.